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Watching TV the way it was meant to be

I fell in love with TV watching reruns of Northern Exposure dubbed in Spanish back in the '90s. But I had to wait more than 25 years to watch TV the way it should be seen.

Cast of Northern Exposure

The cast of Northern Exposure.

CBS photo archive
This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.

During the summer of 1994 I had one main obsession: I stayed up on Friday nights to catch my then-favorite TV show, Northern Exposure. The Spanish TV channel La 2 televised the quirky drama (dubbed, of course) about a snobbish New York doctor forced to practice in a remote but quaint little town in Alaska. But it aired at 11:30 pm, which is late even by Spanish prime time standards. 

At 15, I should have been more interested in socializing with my school peers during weekends, instead of staying in to watch TV until late. But I see that time as my early TV education.

My Northern Exposure fascination got worse a couple of summers later when I stayed up late not just Fridays, but every weeknight to catch reruns of the show around midnight. And the way La 2 presented the program was messy -- it would show a batch of episodes from season 3 one week, only to force viewers back to season 1 the following week. On the nights I didn't want to be sleep-deprived, I'd set the VCR to record with a tape I'd used multiple times. When I think about it now, the whole process was frustrating. But back then, I was young and knew no better. Given the available technology of the mid-1990s, I had no other option. And the experience taught me how good TV storytelling could be.

The beginnings of Peak TV

Brett Pearce/CNET

A few years later when I took a college class on TV genres, I learned about HBO's Sex and the City. The pilot episode allowed me to realize Northern Exposure wasn't a fluke, and TV could be as enriching and sophisticated a medium as cinema or literature. I know… that may sound unusual to you, but TV hadn't peaked yet. The medium was still considered an unrefined art form, and most of my professors were focused on films. Plus, in late 1990s Spain, there wasn't an easy way to watch quality TV. Movies, even the black-and-white, really old ones that lasted too long and weren't very appealing, I could watch at the university's library. But TV shows were harder to find. 

You could go online and download them, but that was illegal and it was difficult to find complete shows. Also, the video quality of episodes varied widely and subtitles weren't included. And I needed subtitles badly back then. My listening in English was limited to BBC newscasters and English teachers with a Scottish accent. I tried to watch The Wire without subtitles and didn't get past the pilot. I literally couldn't understand what all the hype was about. 

Wendell Pierce and Dominic West in The Wire

Wendell Pierce and Dominic West in The Wire.

HBO

At some point, though, I found out about a thing called Amazon -- which had launched in the UK in 1998, but didn't reach Spain until 2011. I could order DVDs (and books) to be sent to my address in Barcelona, but the whole process wasn't necessarily easy or convenient. (Nor was it cheap. I paid $38 for the fifth season of Northern Exposure and almost $40 for its sixth, or about $48 and $50 today.) Cable TV prices were high, as well. In 2000, pay channel Canal+ started airing Sex and the City and The Sopranos. But its price tag (almost $25 a month or about $37 today) was out of reach not only for college students but also for almost everyone else. And I couldn't stomach a dubbed Tony Soprano speaking Peninsular Spanish. (In Canal+'s defense, they also aired the show in its original version with subtitles. But as with La 2 or any other Spanish TV channel back then, the dubbed version was the one by default.)

In 2006 I moved to the US with a very specific idea of the American Dream that included an HBO subscription. But then I found out how much premium cable cost and I was forced to adjust my expectations and resign myself to basic cable fare like Mad Men. It wasn't that bad really. Especially because I was getting DVDs in the mail -- wrapped in Blockbuster blue envelopes first, Netflix red envelopes later on -- and I finally got to see some TV drama classics the way they were meant to be. It took three viewings of the pilot to get hooked on The Wire, but when I did, I fell in love. It's still my favorite TV show.

Sometime in 2013 I finally got my HBO subscription. But of course, then I realized I'd also need to get Showtime if I wanted to watch Homeland. The problem with premium cable, though, is that it was expensive (in 2014 I was paying $150 for premium cable plus internet) and not flexible enough. Both HBO and Showtime offered streaming options for cable subscribers, HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, but not all the channels I was paying for did and the whole idea of needing a DVR brought horror memories of my VHS tape days. I just liked the Netflix streaming experience of watching House of Cards when I chose to and at my own pace.

Robin Wright in House of Cards

Robin Wright in the first season of House of Cards.

Netflix

So at some point in 2015, before HBO Now launched, I cut the cord. I took a risk because I wasn't sure if it would launch before the next season of Game of Thrones began, but the timing worked perfectly. Finally cutting the cord felt good.

Peak TV a la carte

I'm a happy high-quality-dramas consumer right now. I cancel and renew memberships to Starz, Hulu or PBS depending on what they're airing. There are three memberships I tend to keep year-round: Amazon Prime (it's much more than just TV), Netflix (they keep coming up with new stuff every month) and HBO (call it sentimental reasons and yes, I switched from HBO Now to HBO Max the moment it was feasible).

I was glad I could subscribe to Epix just to catch the last Julian Fellowes period drama, Belgravia. My inner J.K. Rowling groupie was delighted to get Cinemax to watch C.B. Strike, a show based on Rowling's mystery books penned under the byline Robert Galbraith. Even if I didn't get CBS All Access free through work (CBS All Access is owned by ViacomCBS, the parent company of CNET) I'd pay for it to watch each new season of The Good Fight. I recognize I get lost sometimes with so many options and with each new streaming service like Apple TV Plus or Disney Plus adding to an almost unlimited offer.

On top of it, my job involves getting press screeners of some shows for review purposes. But even if I worked somewhere else, I value the fact I could still decide to buy the third season of Killing Eve on Amazon and watch it at the same time it airs on BBC America or subscribe to Hulu just to catch Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne on FX's Mrs. America

I don't feel uncomfortable in the least saying I've seen all five seasons of The Wire four times. And I sleep better at night just because I know the David Simon show it's a simple stream away from a fifth viewing.

Northern Exposure DVDs

My mostly unusable Northern Exposure DVD collection. 

Patricia Puentes/CNET

Now, if only I was able to watch Northern Exposure again, It would be an American Dream for scripted TV dramas accomplished. But no streaming service offers it. I can't buy it digitally on Amazon or iTunes. I have the full show on DVD but I no longer have a way to play DVDs. Plus, since I bought the DVDs partly in Europe and partly in the US, some seasons are region 1 and some are region 2, which makes them quite unwatchable even if I had a DVD player. 

More than a quarter century has passed, and there's still no easy way for me to rewatch the show that made me fall in love with TV.

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